A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Inspired by a towering irritation at journalists and academics who trot out the discredited cliché that Victorians were so repressed they insisted that piano legs could not be seen unclothed, Matthew Sweet takes on various misapprehensions about Victorian popular culture. The result, Inventing the Victorians, is a spirited and entertaining read, but a book that cannot quite make up its mind about what it really thinks of this strange homogeneous tribe he believes that we all designate as ‘The Victorians’.
The thesis is that people who lived in Great Britain from the middle to the end of the 19th century are much like you and me, with the same instincts, tastes and preoccupations. Or, according to a quote on the back of the book, ‘more liberated and radical than we believed’. Right … I think I knew that already. His chosen enemy is, I imagine, anyone who lazily buys into the Thatcherite concept of Victorian Values. Did these values REALLY survive more than 48 hours of scrutiny, though, and did they genuinely win Margaret Thatcher her second election? Oh dear – I suppose they did. He also takes a very satisfactory swipe at the pillars of the Bloomsbury Group, whom he blames for our skewed image of the Victorians. But who has ever relied, totally, on Lytton Strachey or Virginia Woolf for their opinions on this? I know that they liked the idea that they were throwing off the shackles etc., but they have only ever seemed to me to be an evolution, not a revolution. I’ve always cultivated a healthy respect and affection for the Victorian age, with lots of examples, including personal ones, before me of its richness and energy. So, I’d like to think I’m not the intended audience.
The subjects he chooses to prove that Victorian Values are not repressive, or cosy or comfortable, reflect what we would consider today tabloid values – sensation and scandal, celebrities, drugs, consumerism, property, children and childhood, and sex. It seems a shame that he did not choose to cover other areas where it is fascinating to reflect on the influence of the 19th century on our lives today: the growth of the business, finance and economic world in which we exist; the development of education, the growth of the idea of the university and the modern framework of academic disciplines; and the influence, or the surprising lack of it, of religion. Two strengths of this book: he does a service in demolishing wherever he finds them arguments from the particular to the general, and he reminds us of the enduring power of the press in ensuring that a partial and misleading factoid can go half way round the world before the truth has got her boots on. A partial and misleading factoid can also stick in the collective memory for 150 years, and be repeated as gospel truth in the 21st century, it seems.
In each chapter, he tends to single out one example, and tell a lively tale, then back it up with other examples, touching on them more lightly. Blondin, the amazing tightrope walker, gets the nod in the chapter dealing with Sensation, Oscar Wilde, of course, in the chapter on sexuality. One insight I did take from that chapter was that Labouchere intended his Criminal Law Amendment Act, introducing the concept of gross indecency which carried a two year sentence, to be a liberalisation of the law on sodomy, which carried a life sentence. That it then became easier to indict people such as Oscar Wilde may have been an unintended consequence.
He draws the parallels in the chapter on childhood between the Fanny Adams murder of 1867 with the Sara Payne case of 2000. He takes the latest swing at Lewis Carroll – but then, who hasn’t? He charts the confusion and ambivalence aroused by the new concept that children deserve their innocence, and the move away from seeing them as miniature adults, and economic units from the age of six. In this chapter, I was genuinely uncertain what his thesis was – Victorians as liberated? As hypocrites? As dangerous paedophiles? Or as just confused? And as opposed to what? Moralistic and repressed? Or driven by an economic imperative? This is where my confusion sets in over the author’s intention in this book.
Sweet is at his most powerful when pointing out how sensational journalism set the agenda, then as now. He very usefully reminds us that W T Stead’s almost entirely mendacious Maiden Tribute articles in the 1880s set up a moral panic about trafficking children that resonates still today. He also isolates a pervasive outbreak of moral outrage around opium dens and evil traffickers in the East End to a single location and four individuals in Wapping. Then he provides a list of respectable and well known laudanum drinkers, and a catalogue of homely remedies all containing Class A narcotics (which many still did in living memory – Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, and Gee’s Linctus, as examples).
I am not yet in my dotage, but I suppose that I straddle the period between the death of Victoria and the birth of the new millennium. I knew my Victorian grandmother (born in 1880) and great-aunts – feisty ladies all, who worked, before, during and after marriage, and ruled the domestic roost. I had living examples before me against which I could measure the generalisations about the Victorian age.
And I read, addictively, 19th century fiction. I think I must be in a minority, for how can anyone read Dickens, Gaskell, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Thackeray, and not see a world that is completely recognisable today? Peopled with respectable folk, chancers, the cruel, the kind, the religious and the atheist, the morally upright and the immoral, as well as the pragmatic. We see the city financier with feet of clay (Mr Merdle), the dodgy futures trader (Adolphus Crosbie), the Blairite politician for hire (Phineas Finn) alongside the far-sighted businessman (John Thornton – had to get him in!) and his thinking, caring financial backer and love interest (Margaret Hale – had to get her in, too!) An interest in the astonishing energy and invention of 19th century science and technology helps, too. It gives a wholly different perspective on an age of discovery, progress and above all, intellectual curiosity. So, who IS this book aimed at? Even though I enjoyed reading it, and liked his style and energy, I found myself rather resenting his assumption that we have so little insight into the lives of our 19th century forebears.
I suppose each generation needs to feel it has rediscovered the Truth about the Victorians. In the 60s, for instance, Ronald Pearsall delved into Victorian sexuality in The Worm in the Bud (1969) and Rupert Croft-Cooke rediscovered some very counter-intuitively dysfunctional Victorian lives in Feasting with Panthers (1967). Heck, I’m a Librarian – I could write the book about the Stereotypes That Refuse To Die, then, rolling up the sleeves of my twin-set, pushing stray hairs back into my bun, and adjusting my sensible glasses, I could classify and catalogue it, too. I have a fellow feeling with any other group of people, alive or dead, that is so thoroughly misunderstood. So, every decade or two, someone decides that it is time to rescue the Victorian age from lazy journalism and received ideas, and that is pretty well entirely a Good Thing. Matthew Sweet is the latest to mount a rescue mission. I rather think that he thinks he is the first, but is he, really? And has he looked in the all the best places, as opposed to those that offer the greatest frisson, to illustrate the greatness of heart and the intellectual energy of the Victorians?
While I was reading this book, I kept thinking that I’d have a book to write in a decade or two, about the second Elizabethan age – and when I got to the end, I found that Matthew Sweet had been thinking that too. There is a brilliant polemic in the last chapter, imagining the clichés and generalisations that would survive to make a future generation feel better about itself (for this is his pivotal point, that ‘we’ (please let me exclude myself) define ourselves by being what the Victorians are not). The modern equivalent of W T Stead and his colleagues will prevail. The online Daily Mail will be plundered for its accurate insights. Our generation will have to endure being identified with champagne-glugging red-braces-wearing city traders, new age beliefs, diets, z-list celebrities, sink estates, and – as for the place of women – simultaneously too fat, too thin, too glamorous, too ugly, staying at home to have babies and cheat the taxpayer, going to work and depriving children of childhood. It won’t be a pretty sight, but we’ll not be there to defend ourselves.
How dare we despise the Victorians! If this book is telling you what you already know, by all means, skip large chunks of it. But do the author the honour of reading the last chapter, ‘Liberating the Victorians’. And give him a big cheer.
Faber and Faber. 2002. ISBN: 9780571206636. 288pp.